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Seven Months in the Sand
Robert Horn
March 10, 1997
South Korea's Choi Jong Yul became the first man to walk across the Sahara
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March 10, 1997

Seven Months In The Sand

South Korea's Choi Jong Yul became the first man to walk across the Sahara

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After changing guides at the border of Mali, the Koreans were confronted by a sight that stopped them in their tracks. Before them on horseback, armed with guns, swords and spears, was a group of Tuareg, their white robes shimmering in the sun and their eyes peering suspiciously through indigo headdresses. The Tuareg, driven from their ancestral city of Timbuktu by Arab invaders centuries ago, roam the wastelands scavenging the desert's meager bounty. They are also raiders who show little pity for those in their path. "Even our guide was frightened when he saw them, and he was a Tuareg," says Oh.

Only Choi was unperturbed. "I looked like a beggar," he says, "so why would they rob me?" They didn't. Choi donned a Tuareg headdress. The boyish-looking Korean had grown a heavy beard and begun to assume the fearsome visage of a desert warrior.

When the trekkers came to the first oasis, they gorged on dates and fruits and talked with Arab and Turu salt traders. "The palm trees were beautiful," Choi says, "but the water was filthy." It also teemed with mosquitoes, and within days both Choi and Yu had contracted malaria. Oh and other members of the team urged them to quit. Yu had no choice; his body was too weak from fever. As Yu was driven away, Choi silenced all protests. He wasn't giving up. But as he struggled forward, pouring precious water on his head to cool his raging fever, he began to doubt whether he could finish the crossing.

For days Choi kept looking over his shoulder, convinced that his departed friend was just behind him. He took chloroquine and at night gave himself more acupuncture, and slowly the fever fell. His strength was returning as he approached the border of Niger on Jan. 31.

He was surprised to see the expedition trucks parked at the single-story stone building that marked the border post. Inside, an officer of the Niger border police explained that there had been a coup d'�tat earlier that day. No one could enter Niger.

For most of the day the team pleaded with the police. Finally Choi slipped his wristwatch to the officer, who broke into a smile. The foreigners were allowed to pass.

Choi was covering as many as 37 miles a day, yet after four months he was little more than halfway across the desert. The khamsin, the dry wind that whips down from the Mediterranean, was building, blowing sand into his eyes, sucking moisture from his body. On some days the khamsin blew at 60 mph, and all Choi could do was dig into the dunes and wait it out.

After he crossed Chad and entered Sudan, Choi's plan was to turn north into Egypt, but Egyptian border police refused to admit the caravan. So Choi continued on through Sudan. After crossing the Nile in a small rented boat and entering the Nubian desert, Choi was headed straight for the Red Sea. By the time he reached Suakin, hundreds of Sudanese had gathered by the shore to see him take his historic plunge into the water.

The next day Choi flew to Cairo, where he was overwhelmed by reporters. "I am confused," he said, flinching at the camera flashes and the noise of the crowd. "I was used to walking every day and now feel something is missing." After he returned to Seoul, it would take him two months to adjust to his old life.

Choi says his adventures always change him. "I thought the desert would be beautiful," he says, "but all I saw was suffering. People struggling for the most basic necessities, like clean water. Yet people find a way to live. Even flowers bloom. Somehow, where it seems like nothing could survive, life finds a way to triumph."

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